My 2-year-old daughter, Ally, rocks the house with a tantrum. I try to comfort her, but she’s still screaming.
Hungry? Tired? Needs to be changed? Bumped into something? Wants something that’s out of reach?
All of these questions come to mind as I hug her, but she keeps screaming. I don’t know what she wants and we don’t speak the same language—at least not yet.
But I know I need to keep trying. I might even learn something from the experience, though it doesn’t feel like it right now.
As a parent, I learn more every day about how kids express their anger and needs. Though my daughter’s pain wounds me, it’s my job to somehow be patient, flexible and attentive.
Finally, a spontaneous game of peek-a-boo with Ally and a mirror makes her giggle and calms her down. She stops crying, and I still don’t know what set her off.
Ally’s usually calm demeanor once led my wife, Nancy, to ask: “How did we get such a mellow baby?”
“I don’t know,” I said at the time. “I’ve never seen a baby this peaceful.”
Mellow? Peaceful? These are not the words that describe her when she’s angry.
I ask a child psychiatrist how parents can relate to children who are upset.
“If parents can let children—even very young children—see they are interested and not making assumptions, speaking for them or deciding they can’t in some way help themselves, that is very important,” says Dr. Sucheta Connolly, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and director of the Pediatric Stress and Disorders Clinic at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It is also very important to show kids that people can express their angry feelings and work toward some resolution or compromise.”
One longtime early childhood educator adds that even though a young child having a tantrum may be going through a perfectly normal phase, parents can also learn important lessons from the experience.
“The communication patterns parents start with their youngest children are going to be with them when their child is a teenager,” says Sue Dinwiddie, a former head teacher at Bing Nursery School at Stanford University and author of several parenting books.
“When a child is older, you will want a style that is comfortable because you want your child to be safe and tell you anything—even stuff you don’t want to hear—without the fear of being punished. We get mad throughout our lives. To learn how to cope with that in childhood, that’s a gift.”
Then there’s the issue of how a parent’s own stress level affects how he or she handles upset kids.
“Parents have to take a deep breath and get out of the trap of feeling guilty or blaming themselves,” Dinwiddie adds. “I always say to parents that if it’s less serious than gushing from an artery, get your mind in order. Cool off.”
Life with a 2-year-old reminds me of a fast and bumpy amusement park ride. And this time around, it’s vastly different than when my older daughter, Dina, now 5, was this age. Even as an infant, when she wiggled her fingers in and out of my hand, Dina was friendly to all, outgoing and as obvious about what she wanted as a bright, bold, multi-colored billboard.
Ally, on the other hand, can be wide-eyed, placid and shy with strangers, yet cheery with immediate family members.
Until, of course, the typhoon comes.
Later that same day, Ally is calm. She is playing by herself in the living room while I pull a pitcher of water out of the refrigerator.
Suddenly, she starts wailing again. Why? About what? I’ve just changed her diaper and given her a bottle. She just had a nap.
“Bite man,” she wails through her tears as she storms into the kitchen.
I tell her I don’t understand, but she says it again: “Bite man!”
“Bite man?” I think to myself. Hey, I encourage my daughters to express themselves in all kinds of ways, but this is going too far. We don’t bite people in our house. Ever. Not only that, I’m the only man around.
I still don’t get it when she says it again. My wife is out of the house with our other daughter, so there’s no one else around who might provide translation services.
That’s when Ally starts crying again—crying hard. I am at a loss and pick her up. More tears.
I am frustrated but try to remember that she’s even more frustrated.
Sometimes when Ally is upset, I show her pictures or objects to calm her down. This time, I’m in the kitchen and open a cabinet. I figure the shapes and colors will intrigue her. So I point to red boxes of raisins and a bottle of olive oil.
Then suddenly, Ally says the magic word: “Bitamin.”
Of course. She sees a jar of vitamins and asks for one, using a word I’ve never heard before. I know we allow her to have one, so I open the jar, give her a “bitamin” and put her down. She closely examines the tiny, bear-shaped tablet.
For a few precious moments, my daughter walks around the house, says “bitamin” a bunch of times and chews on her prize.
And I’m suddenly a little cocky about my ability to listen to, comfort and understand my 2-year-old. I tell myself that I acted just the way I want people to act with me when I’m upset or angry or need something—with patience, compassion and an open mind. I can’t wait to tell Nancy and Dina about this triumph.
Moments later, though, I hear those little feet charging toward me. It’s Ally, throwing down the gauntlet with a whole new challenge.
“Daddy,” she says, pointing to the cabinet, “more bitamin!”
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at email@example.com